Gold leaf so thin you could blow it away is making the State House dome glitter

  • Jill Eides, foreman of the crew returning the gold luster to the State House dome. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Jill Eides, foreman of the crew returning the gold luster to the State House dome, shows a sheet of what the gold looks like. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • A photo showing the process of gilding the eagle on top of the State House dome provided by Jill Eide. Jill Eide—Courtesy

  • A selfie by Jill Eide at the top of the State House dome eagle. Jill Eide—Courtesy

  • RIGHT: The finished eagle atop the dome.

  • A photo of the eagle on top of the State House provided by Jill Eide. Jill Eide—Courtesy

  • The finished eagle on top of the State House dome. Jill Eide—Courtesy

Monitor staff
Thursday, July 21, 2016

When Jill Eides is at work, all that glitters probably is gold, despite what the proverb says.
Which is wonderful. And sometimes annoying.

“For me, it’s just: Yeah, it’s gold leaf. Yes, it’s gold. It’s on my face, in my mouth – pfffft!” said Eides, foreman of the crew returning the luster to the State House dome.

“Gold is amazing; it’s rare, it’s pretty, the durability is amazing. But still . . .” and she laughed.

The process of changing the State House dome from its spotty, tarnished look is in full swing. The three-person crew from New York-based Evergreene Architectural Arts is gilding the actual dome itself, placing thousands of small sheets of gold leaf to curved surfaces, while harnessed to scaffolding more than 100 feet above the ground.

“I did about half the eagle one day, the back another day, and the ball,” Eides said Friday, speaking of the monument that sits on the cupola known as the lantern, atop the dome itself. “Those are things that are tricky, you have to go under and over the curved surfaces. Now we’ve worked to the dome, flat surfaces, that goes a lot faster – we’ll be cranking along now.”

Cranking is a subjective term on a job like this. Gilding is expected to continue through the start of August, after which disassembling the million-dollar scaffolding won’t be trivial.

You can see through it

All of this in honor of a substance so flimsy you have to be careful exhaling.

“It’s so thin you can literally see right through it. . . . If I took a sheet and picked it up – a puff of my breath, poof, the whole thing would disintegrate,” said Jeff Greene, founder of Evergreene.

He said the company bought the State House gold from Manetti, a company in Florence, Italy, that has been involved with gold leaf and gilding for centuries.

“They take a rivet of gold about the size of your little finger, cut it into squares, about the size of your fingernail, put that on a leather pillow and they beat it. Traditionally it’s done by hand, but now in Italy, where our gold comes from, they do it by machine, a pneumatic hammer,” Greene said in a recent interview. “One of the secrets is they put it between sheets of vellum – only place you can get it is from Brazil and Argentina.”

The gold is beaten so thin that 1,000 leaves, each slightly more than 3 inches by 3 inches in area, weighs just 18 grams, or two-thirds of an ounce. The dome uses double-weight gold, which is thicker to better withstand pollution – atmospheric particulates or “dust in the wind” is the big enemy – but even it weighs just 23 grams per 1,000 leaves, still less than 1 ounce.

“In terms of gilding, we use several hundred thousand dollars worth of gold every year,” Greene said.

The gold on Concord’s dome is 23.5 karat, in which a little metallic alloy dilutes it from 24 karat to assist with application.

Crews get the gold leaf either on long narrow rolls or in books of individual leaves, each attached to paper to protect it. Surprisingly, considering the metal’s reputation for durability, gold leaf is vulnerable to the human touch.

“You can touch the (paper) wrapper and the back, you can go nuts, but the oils of your finger on the gold will ruin it, will make it tarnish,” Eides said.

This concern as well as safety helps explain why the scaffolding is off limits to almost everybody – including reporters and photographers from the Monitor.

“Everybody wants to come up and see, but I get one guy who leans on it and way to go, you’ve ruined it,” Eides said.

The state may be more sensitive because the previous gilding failed so quickly, apparently because the contractor didn’t do a good job with applying “size,” which acts as the glue that holds the leaf. This is due in part, officials say, to the fact that workers in the 1993 job used bosun’s chairs suspended from beams stuck out of the windows of the cupola atop the dome, which made it hard for them to cover the dome and slowed them down so that the size dried improperly.

“Ropes are a no-no, it just doesn’t work out too well,” Eides said. “It definitely was (part of the problem) – you can see how you couldn’t reach some places. There’s no way you can access everything like that.”

Like wallpaper, but more difficult

Applying gold leaf is like an extreme version of replacing wallpaper. First the old gilding had to be scrubbed off clean down to the bare copper, which was then covered with a primer via brush or roller.

The copper “is in good shape. Getting that finish off was no fun, but we got under there and found very minimal, maybe two or three, copper repair spots. It’s just the surface that was totally trashed,” Eides said.

Then comes the size, which is “very similar to a varnish,” also applied by brush and roller. With size, she said, timing is key.

“We put that on at the end of a workday. It’s the 12-hour size . . . after 12 hours it gets a certain tack, just grabs onto the hairs of your fingers, and it’s ready,” Eides said.

“What you put on, that will be your next work day – you really have to do your timing, be pretty precise, know what you’re getting into. For the weekend, I will come in Sunday and put some size on, so the crew has something to put gold on Monday,” she said.

The size is firm but unforgiving. You can’t slide a sheet around if it’s applied a bit crooked; mistakes have to be covered with more gold leaf.

“That’s part of the art of gilding,” Greene said.

And it is an art, as well as a craft and skill. Eides, in fact, studied fine arts at the University of Wisconsin, where her interest in art restoration led her into this field, and her past includes an apprenticeship in Antrim studying stained glass with famed artist Richard Millard.

“Every job is different. I just came from Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio, doing a paint study on a mural that had been painted over about five times. It was (in) a huge apse: I was 60 feet up in the air trying to get six layers of paint off to find the original colors of this beautiful mural,” she said.

There’s another aspect of working with gold leaf on public places like state houses, which are common Evergreene Architectural Arts customers: public attention.

“I deal with everybody; parishioners to politicians,” Eides said.

And although New Hampshire has reason to be paranoid, since things didn’t go well last time, she said work in Concord has been straightforward.

“They’ve been good here – they trust us,” she said.